He found it intact.

Throwing a leg over the seat, he keyed the ignition. The engine purred happily to life. He reached for the throttle, then paused. Something had been hooked around his handlebar. He freed it, stared at it for a moment, then shoved it in a pocket.

Damn…

He throttled up and edged his bike to a neighboring alleyway. The path appeared clear for the moment. He hunched down, gunned the engine, and shot between the dark buildings. Reaching Porter Street, he made a sharp left turn, coming around fast, leaning out his left knee for balance. Only a couple cars shared the street. None of them appeared to be MP vehicles.

He zigzagged around them and sped off toward the more rural section of the base that surrounded Nallin Pond, a parkland region of gently rolling hills and patches of hardwood forest.

He would wait out the worst of the commotion, then slip away. For now, he was safe. Still, he felt the weight of the object in his pocket, left as decoration on his bike.

A silver chain…with a dangling dragon pendant.

5:48 A.M.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

PAINTER STEPPED back from the satellite console. The technician had caught Grayson’s escape by motorcycle as he appeared out of the cloud of smoke and dust. Logan was still on the phone, passing information down a series of covert channels, sounding the all-clear. Whitewashed from on high, the trouble at the base would be blamed on miscommunication, faulty wiring, decomposing munitions.

Sigma Force would never be mentioned.

The satellite tech held his earpiece in place. “Sir, I have a telephone call from the director of DARPA.” “Switch it over here.” Painter plucked up another receiver. He listened as the scrambled communication was routed.

The tech nodded to him as the dead air over the line seemed to breathe to life. Though no one spoke, Painter could almost sense his mentor and commander. “Director McKnight?” he said, suspecting the man was calling to get a mission debrief.

His suspicion proved wrong.

He heard the stress in the other’s voice. “Painter, I just received some intel out of Germany. Strange deaths at a cathedral. We need a team on the ground there by nightfall.”

“So soon?”

“Details will follow within the quarter hour. But we’re going to need your best agent to head this team.”

Painter stared over at the satellite monitor. He watched the motorcycle skim through the hills, flickering through the sparse canopy of trees.

“I may have just the man. But may I ask what the urgency is?”

“A call came in early this morning, requesting Sigma to investigate the matter in Germany. Your group has been specifically summoned.”

“Summoned? By whom?”

To have Dr. McKnight this rattled, it had to be someone as high up as the President. But once again, Painter’s supposition proved wrong.

The director explained, “By the Vatican.”

2

THE ETERNAL CITY

JULY 24, NOON

ROME, ITALY

SO MUCH for making her lunch date.

Lieutenant Rachel Verona climbed down the narrow stairs that led deep under the Basilica of San Clemente. The excavation below the church had been under way for two months, overseen by a small team of archaeologists from the University of Naples.

“Lasciate ogni speranza…”Rachel muttered.

Her guide, Professor Lena Giovanna, the project leader, glanced back at her. She was a tall woman, mid-fifties, but the permanent crook in her back made her seem older and shorter. She offered Rachel a tired smile. “So you know your Dante Alighieri. And in the original Latin no less. Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate! Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Rachel felt a twinge of embarrassment. According to Dante, those words were written on the gates of Hell. She had not meant her words to be heard, but the acoustics here left little privacy. “No offense intended, Professore.”

A chuckle answered her. “None taken, Lieutenant. I was just surprised to find someone in the military police with such fluency in Latin. Even someone working for the Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale.”

Rachel understood the misconception. It was fairly typical to paint all the Carabinieri Corps with the same brush. Most civilians only saw the uniformed men and women guarding streets and buildings, armed with rifles. But she had entered the Corps not as a military soldier, but with a graduate degree in psychology and art history. She had been recruited into the Carabinieri Corps right out of the university, spending an additional two years at the officers’ training college studying international law. She had been handpicked by General Rende, who ran the special unit involved with the investigation of art and antiquity thefts, the Tutela Patrimonio Culturale.

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Rachel stepped into a pool of dank water. The storm of the past few days had flooded the subterranean level. She glanced down sourly. At least it was only ankle-deep.

She wore a borrowed set of rubber boots that were too large, meant for a man. She carried her new Ferragamo pumps in her left hand, a birthday gift from her mother. She dared not leave them on the stairs. Thieves were always about. If she lost her shoes or got them soiled, she’d never hear the end of it from her mother.

Professor Giovanna, on the other hand, wore a utilitarian coverall, an attire more fitting for exploring waterlogged ruins than Rachel’s navy slacks and silk flowered blouse. But when Rachel’s pager had gone off a quarter hour ago, she had been heading over to a lunch date with her mother and sister. She’d had no time to return to her apartment and change into her carabiniere uniform. Not if she was going to have any chance of still making that lunch.

So she had come directly here, meeting up with a pair of local carabinieri. Rachel had left the military policemen up in the basilica while she performed the initial investigation into the theft.

In some regards, Rachel was glad for the temporary reprieve. She had put off for too long letting her mother know that she and Gino had broken up. In fact, her ex-boyfriend had moved out more than a month ago. Rachel could already picture the knowing disappointment in her mother’s eyes, accompanied by the usual noises that implied I told you so without coming out and actually saying it aloud. And her older sister, three years married, would be pointedly twisting that diamond wedding band on her finger and nodding her head sagely.

Neither had been pleased with Rachel’s choice of profession.

“How are you to keep a husband, you crazy girl?” her mother had intoned, throwing her arms toward heaven. “You cut your beautiful hair so short. You sleep with a gun. No man can compete with that.”

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